ACTORS' DIALOGUE: Henry Winkler & John Ritter

Henry Winkler and John Ritter are more than just television icons from the 1970s. They are sitcom survivors who have succeeded in staying in the game. They are also, perhaps not coincidentally, very good friends, having met while both were stars of two of ABC's top-rated series-Winkler on Happy Days and Ritter on Three's Company. After both finished these series in 1984, they've performed together on the TV movie No Way Out and now onstage in Neil Simon's new play, The Dinner Party, which premieres this week at the Mark Taper Forum and co-stars Edward Herrmann, Frances Conroy, and Veanne Cox.

Winkler is a graduate of Emerson College in Boston and received his M.F.A. from Yale University. With the Yale Repertory Company, he appeared in a summer of story theatre and in Philip Roth's Defender of the Faith. He then toured with Children's Story Theatre and, with friends, put together Off the Wall, an evening of improvisations which played Off-Broadway. Winkler made his motion picture debut in The Lords of Flatbush followed by Crazy Joe. In 1973, he was cast as Arthur Fonzarelli, better known to fans as the Fonz, in Happy Days, which ran for 10 seasons and for which Winkler received two Golden Globe awards for Best Actor and three Emmy nominations. His feature film credits include Heroes, The One and Only, Nightshift, Scream, The Waterboy, and the upcoming Miramax release Down to You. Winkler has starred in numerous television movies, including An American Christmas Carol, Truman Capote's One Christmas, and A Child Is Missing.

A successful producer and director, Winkler's producing credits include the series Sightings, MacGyver, Dead Man's Gun, and the Disney Channel's So Weird. His directing credits include the feature films Memories of Me and Cop and a Half. Winkler received the Humanitas Prize and an Emmy for his TV documentary Who Are the DeBolts? And Where Did They Get Nineteen Kids?

Ritter graduated from the University of Southern California with a B.F.A. degree in Theatre. He came to national prominence in 1977 as the star of the long-running series Three's Company, for which he won Emmy, Golden Globe, and People's Choice awards for his portrayal of the swinging bachelor Jack Tripper. In 1987, he returned to the weekly format with the series Hooperman, followed in 1992 by the sitcom Hearts Afire, which ran until 1995. Ritter has starred in more than 20 television movies, including Unnatural Causes, Stephen King's It, The Dreamer of Oz, Unforgivable, Joe Landon's The Comeback, and earlier this year Holy Joe and Lethal Vows.

His feature film credits include Peter Bogdonovich's They All Laughed and Noises Off, Problem Child, Stay Tuned, Blake Edward's Skin Deep, and Billy Bob Thornton's highly acclaimed Sling Blade. His stage work includes The Glass Menagerie, Forty Carats, Butterflies Are Free, As You Like It, The Tempest, Who's Happy Now?, and Steve Martin's one-act plays at the 1998 Aspen Comedy Festival.

Back Stage West: I would imagine that The Dinner Party is meaningful to you both not only for the chance to perform Neil Simon's work and to work directly with Mr. Simon, but also because you are getting the opportunity to premiere his work.

Henry Winkler: It is amazing. There are no words. This is Neil Simon. We go to see his plays on Broadway and now, all of a sudden, we're in a play with him in the rehearsal hall. He has nice sweaters, doesn't he?

John Ritter: Henry and I have been friends for over 60 years now. OK-a long time. And one of the things that we share is that we really don't take this [opportunity] for granted. We realize how fortunate we are to be doing this play. And we're so happy to be working together again.

Henry: And I'll tell you one thing which has been an amazing experience. I personally-and I know that John feels the same way-can't wait to get to the theatre. It is so much fun to do. And the most amazing thing is that at this moment in his career, [Mr. Simon] has the will, courage, stamina, and fortitude to change his style. He keeps pushing the envelope for himself. And he truly loves his audience. He really hears them and writes for them.

John: I think one of the reasons he's so successful is because he really does care what the audience feels. This is a very important play to him and to us too, because of the idea of, What does it take for you to sit down at the dinner party of life, when the stakes are a little higher than you think? [In the play,] the evening starts out on one level and ends up on another.

Henry: Which is life. You think you're going one place and you get there and you're in another place completely.

BSW: Which is probably what it felt like for both of you when you landed Happy Days and Three's Company, respectively. Apart from your theatre training, did either of you feel at all prepared for becoming celebrities?

Henry: No, and I'll tell you why-because fame and celebrity-dom is not built into the human psyche. It is not natural. Fame and fortune are gravy-very, very thick gravy, and if you don't negotiate that gravy, it will pull you under.

John: Henry and I have seen some really horrible, broken-hearted people who believe their reviews or their ratings, and all of a sudden, one day the phone stops ringing and they have nothing to fall back on, because they've been a professional celebrity.

Sure, every young person dreams about being famous, but nobody wants to be famous-unless they're Zsa Zsa Gabor-every single moment of every single day.

Henry: It takes tremendous patience and strength. It takes a will to really enjoy people, because you're going to meet almost every person on the planet for a while. The fact of the matter is that being a celebrity has nothing to do with what is in your imagination. The reality of it is frightening, and what happens is, if you start to believe that you are more than you are, then you are literally and figuratively dead.

John: You know what happened to me the day I went to do the Three's Company pilot? I was going to be in Freddie Prinze's dressing room. He was on hiatus from Chico and the Man. I was driving to the studio and I hear on the radio, "This just in: Freddie Prinze shot himself in the head." Later, as I was walking through the door of his dressing room, I said, Whatever it is that I'm looking for in my life, it certainly isn't being a successful actor on a TV show. That's not going to do it in itself.

Henry: You have to think of your career as if you are a forest ranger. You plant a seedling and it takes 75 years for that tree to become big. If you're thinking about instant fame-get in, get out, be a flash in the pan-that will really mess you up.

Back in the Saddle

BSW: Henry, I understand that you haven't worked onstage in 17 years. How does it feel to step back onstage after such a long absence?

Henry: I was terrified and now I'm just mildly confused, but I am thoroughly enjoying myself.

BSW: Why has it been so long since you've worked in the theatre?

Henry: The opportunity had not presented itself, or the opportunity presented itself, but it didn't seem right to me.

BSW: Henry, didn't you also take an eight-year hiatus from being in front of the camera?

Henry: Yeah.

John: Eight years! Wait a minute. Really?

Henry: After Happy Days, until 1991, when I did Absolute Strangers, that TV movie about abortion. I played the husband.

John: I did not realize that it had been that long, Henry.

BSW: Was it just because you were too busy producing and directing?

Henry: No. I did not feel like acting. I couldn't get it up to act. I was in shock, because I did not plan on this at all. I felt the desire to act drip out my toes. I felt it leave my body. And [acting] is what I had planned to do with life after the series. And then 1991 came and I came back.

John: In a very serious drama.

Henry: I came back a better actor.

John: My daughter did this production of Romeo & Juliet when she was younger and this agent said she should work, and I said, "You know what? I'd rather just have her go to school." If she wants to do plays in school, fine. But I think you should experience life before you can recreate it.

Henry: I say that!

John: Do you?

Henry: Yeah. I say that exact sentence.

John: Well, maybe that's where I got it from! [Laughs.] But I think that's what you were doing-experiencing life.

BSW: Are both of you enjoying acting more at this point in your careers compared to when you were at the height of your fame in the 1970s?

John: I really am.

Henry: Absolutely. I went from Scream to The Waterboy. I did The Practice, which was unbelievable to work with those people. And now Neil Simon and John Ritter. Holy mackerel.

John: I really have had fun on many shows, but this play is about as much fun as I've had. We're working so hard. We came up with a scene last night and we got it real late in the day and we said, "Maybe we'll put it in the next night." And then we all said, "No. Let's go for it tonight." We all felt like we were in our early 20s-as opposed to our early 30s.

Eye on the Prize

BSW: What advice can you give a struggling actor?

Henry: There is one word that you need in your life and that is tenacity. If you will it, it is not a dream. Keep your eye on the prize. Keep your eye on what you want. That's the truth.

BSW: Is there anything you wish you had known when you were starting out?

Henry: I wish that I had had less self-doubt. If I could have cleared one thing out of my gray matter, it would have been the excessive self-doubt. I mean, you need a little, but I was plagued by it. It stopped me from breathing. It stopped me from thinking clearly. It stopped me from being natural. And then step by step, I cleared it out. I've learned that it's as easy to be positive as it is to be negative.

John: It's easier in a way. I think that a clenched fist is harder to maintain than an open hand.

Henry: That's a great way to say it.

BSW: How did you learn to cope with rejection?

Henry: Sometimes you would go in and you would be pouring your heart out and the casting director would never look up because you were too short or your hair was brown or your nose was big-and I just thought to myself, Hey, it's OK. You don't want me, I'm going down the street and I'm going to try it again there. I've got no time to waste. I'm mining the system.

John: My thing is I always assume that I won't get the part. That way I sort of trick myself. Like when I went in to audition for this part, all I did was I read Neil Simon's [autobiography] and in it he said that he likes actors to try to be as honest as possible, as opposed to try to be as funny as they can. His bit is, You don't have to say it funny if it's funny. You just say it.

And so that's basically what I did. When he underlined a word, I said the underline. My whole image was not to be embarrassing, but to say, Thank you for the opportunity of reading for you. After it was over, I was just happy that I didn't fall on my face. And Neil was so nice.

BSW: John, is working at the Mark Taper a homecoming of sorts for you?

John: Definitely. I got my Equity card here in the early '70s at the Taper doing New Theatre for Now. And then I did the play Meeting by the River, directed by James Bridges, at the Taper. I also did a play at the Ahmanson called The Unvarnished Truth. And I was an usher here. I can show you to any seat in the Mark Taper Forum or Ahmanson.

BSW: What remains the joy of acting for you both?

Henry: First of all, it's fun to solve the puzzle. I see creating a character as a jigsaw puzzle and all the pieces are pretty much the color blue. There are no clues and you have to start putting them together to make this mosaic. And when it works, you can literally take the audience on a journey and tell a wonderful story and move them.

John: An acting teacher I love, Nina Foch, said this, and I think it's really wonderful. She said, "Imagine there's an invisible golden thread that goes through every person's heart. It's the artist's job to pluck it." They burst out laughing or they cry or they get scared or nervous. [Acting] celebrates the idea of being human, of living, and of sharing an experience together.

The theatre is reverential. People come for an experience. It's almost ritualistic. We're the second oldest profession, actors. I'm proud of that.

BSW: Is it going to be another 17 years until your next play, Henry?

Henry: I don't know. Right now I'm going to get through tonight. BSW